There is a surprising and timely sense of modern relevance and terror in the latest version of Joseph Losey’s harshly expressionistic film from 1964. Tom Courtenay portrays the tight-lipped, loquacious yet enigmatic Private Hamp, who is being tried for desertion during World War I after leaving his post at Passchendaele under mysterious circumstances.
Captain Charles Hargreaves, played by Dirk Bogarde, is tasked with defending Private Hamp. Despite his personal dislike towards Hamp, as is common among the officer class, and the looming execution, Hargreaves courageously brings up the topic of Hamp’s mental health in court. The presiding colonel, played by Peter Copley, scoffs at this modern concept. Hargreaves clarifies that he does not mean that Hamp is insane, but rather that the idea of mental health struggles holds significance in modern times. However, Hamp himself is unaware of this issue and cannot use it to his advantage.
Based on John Wilson’s stage-play Hamp, which was adapted from James Hodson’s novel Return to the Wood, King and Country tells the harrowing story of wartime Britain during World War I, depicting both the horrors of war and the class divisions within society. The actors chosen by director Losey were representative of the traditional roles of officers and enlisted men. Similar to Kubrick’s 1957 film Paths of Glory, the focus is on the execution of a soldier for cowardice, highlighting the senselessness and brutality of war. Bogarde portrays Hargreaves, a character who is morally sound but wishes that Hamp could have avoided his fate as a mere pawn in the war. Foster plays Lieutenant Webb, a likable officer, while Villers portrays the disdainful prosecuting officer Captain Midgley. Despite their apparent animosity during the trial, they are cordial afterwards in the officers’ section of their dugout, reminiscent of an Oxbridge common room. Leo McKern’s portrayal of medical officer Captain O’Sullivan, who has little to offer frightened soldiers other than laxatives, sets him apart from the rest of the group. Meanwhile, the soldiers who will have to carry out Hamp’s execution in a few hours are getting drunk and mockingly putting a rat on trial for biting one of them. One of these soldiers is played by David Cook, an actor and novelist.
Hamp, a poor and naive character, is portrayed by Courtenay in a memorable way. He nonchalantly shares with Hargreaves how he joined the war in 1914 under pressure from his wife and mother, but now his wife is having an affair with another man. Hargreaves sees this as a key element for his defense, but Hamp doesn’t seem too bothered by it now. He also seems unaffected by the near-death experience that motivated his escape attempt. Hargreaves is trying to make sense of Hamp’s odd and almost childlike honesty, along with his vagueness about his feelings and timing. Is it a facade? Ignorance? Or is this what future generations would call a catch-22? Clearly, Hamp is deemed insane, but then again, the entire war is insane. Insanity may be a mitigating factor for Hamp or even an argument for acquittal, but it is also the only justification for continuing with the war.
Losey’s film portrays a dark and unsettling monochromatic vision, incorporating real images from the trenches provided by the Imperial War Museum. Subliminal flashes of photographs are also used, revealing Hamp’s memories of his civilian life and mental state before enlisting. We catch a glimpse of Hamp’s home in Islington, London, as well as his young son dressed in a sentimental Edwardian style, and a smug mustachioed man who may be his wife’s lover. As he speaks of “king and country,” an ironic shot of Kaiser Wilhelm II is shown next to his cousin, King George V.
Hamp and everyone else are faced with an extra level of terror knowing the precise hour of Hamp’s impending demise. While the others are also aware of the looming threat of death, they can still hold onto the hope of escape. But Hamp is acutely aware of his own mortality, unlike anyone else. This movie is a harrowing ordeal, and Dirk Bogarde’s final blow is the most horrific of all.